When it comes to books, lectures, experiences and events we are apt to give an immediate opinion, a snap judgment, a gut reaction. We do it all the time, it’s in our nature. I am as guilty of it as you are. It’s who we are. For every action there is an equal and opposite…you know the rest.
Thus, when Rob Bell and Harper Collins put out a video and a synopsis for Bell’s new book Love Wins there were plenty of immediate reactions, many of them before the book was even read.
When the book came out there were plenty of reviews the next day, discussions that were starting, opinions that were given and study guides written. Some of them were fantastic, others were, well, less than that.
I myself tried to get the whole thing going with a discussion here at RE:creative. Yet, two things happened: 1) I am a grad student and its the end of the spring semester (read crazy busy) and 2) I found that reading a book like Love Wins and reacting immediately to it with comments, questions and conclusions is irresponsible and disrespectful towards Scripture and the God who is love (1 John 4:16).
Love Wins is a book that is to be read, digested, mulled over, challenged, discussed and processed.
Three reads later and after tons of conversation I am ready to post what I think is going on with Rob Bell’s book, his theology, the discussion about heaven/hell and what God is doing in and through Jesus Christ in this world and the next.
This is not a page-by-page exposition, and you will note that I don’t quote Bell much in the review below. This review is more of a commentary on the theme, the thrust and the tone of Bell’s book and theology more than anything else. It weaves in stuff I’ve heard from him in other books, in speaking tours, in NOOMAs and in sermons. If you haven’t read Love Wins (which I recommend before passing judgement) it probably is not the best review for you.
So here it is: the good, the bad and the ugly
First, the good. Let’s give Bell a compliment sandwich.
While I was painting a fence in the Fifth Ward here in Houston as part of a missional leadership class a colleague/informal-mentor of mine asked what I thought of the book. I, liking to put a positive swing on things, stated what I liked about it. I replied saying that, “Bell brings the narrative focus of Scripture back to the here and now and that’s what Jesus did, God wants and the Spirit drives us toward. He warns us of a theology of evacuation and instead points us back to Scripture, which speaks of redemption and restoration.”
It’s cute to say it, and fun to put it on a bumper sticker, but the case of the matter is that the Bible is not Basic Instruction Before Leaving Earth, it is a narrative that we are joining today and get to be a part of for eternity.
Take the story of Lazarus as a prime example. Jesus shows up on the scene and Lazarus is dead. Four days dead. That’s really dead. Talking to Martha Jesus blurts out, “Your brother will rise again.” Being quite pious and faithful, Martha responds with the Jewish catechism answer, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
What an empty theology. You can almost here the doldrum inflections in Martha’s voice.
Yes Lord, I KNOW that he will rise again in the last day, I’ve heard that before, but that does not change the fact that he is dead here and now.
Then Jesus quips, “I AM the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never dies. Do you believe this?”
Now that’s something to believe in!
So Martha replies, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
The momentum is building, the expectation is thick…Jesus is about to do something. He is the one who is coming into the world. He is not simply the one who has come or will come, he is actively doing something right here, right now.
In this case, he raised Lazarus from the dead.
Some well-meaning preachers and commentators reflect and say, “Poor Lazarus! He was in heaven with God and then he was ripped back into life!” We should not feel sorry for Lazarus. Jesus did not feel sorry for Lazarus, he raised him from the dead, not only to make a point about him being the resurrection and the life, but also saying something about the content of the resurrection and the life that he brings. He tells people that the resurrection he is bringing is not about when we are dead or just some day in the future.
I AM the resurrection and the life. Whoever who lives and believes in me shall never die.
Those words are present and active, not future or indicative.
Jesus’ resurrection life is just as much about living life now as it is about living eternally.
We would, like Mary, Martha, the disciples and the rest of the mourning crew, do well to remember that.
Bell should be applauded for bringing the discussion of heaven and hell back down to earth.
In terms of the Gospel and eschatology (our limited understanding of the last things) there is a danger to make (at least) two mistakes:
1) Making the story too small. Limiting ourselves to this side of restoration.
+The Gospel is a message that is for me, but its not about me. The Lord’s Prayer is given on purpose; we are confiscated (look to what Jesus did of the fishermen) for something much greater than ourselves. This message is about God and his creation (that obviously involves us). It is God’s rescue story for all his creation.
2) Making the story too short. Limiting ourselves to thinking our bodies don’t get to join the party.
+That is to say, we are neither Gnostics or Platonists, and we must not give death the last word. It is not the doorway into life; it is death. Our bodies die, but then they rise. They are restored, fully. That’s happening now as much as it will happen after death, but death still happens.
Now, if you get this larger story wrong then you start to get a lot of the smaller details wrong too. That’s what Bell presents in his book. That those of us who are thinking so much about heaven after we die tend to live like disembodied souls today, completely out of touch with the reality of death, suffering and evil in the world today (unless of course, it lines up with our political ideologies – that goes for the left and the right).
On the same token, there are those of us who are so focused on the here and the now that we miss the grand restoration of all things and the realization that no matter how much we do and how much we try to restore things to their rightful place here on earth it will never happen by our might or our strength alone. We need Christ to set things right, and he is doing that now, but there is much still left to be done in the not yet.
The questions we must ask ourselves in the face of Bell’s challenge are: what does it mean to be fully human? what is death? where is the realm of salvation? is anyone climbing Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28)?
Salvation is something that is oriented from up to down and not the other way around. It is heaven coming to earth, the kingdom in-breaking into this world, not us getting out of this world. The Kingdom, the Reign, of Christ is coming into the world. It is about restoration not evacuation.
However, bringing the story back to earth does not equilaterally mean extrapolating it into the eschatological future. The reign of Christ will come to earth. There will be things evacuated at the end as much as they will be restored (Matthew 3:12; 25;35-46 etc.).
(Un)fortunately, the narrative of Scripture, does not say much about the mechanics of the evacuation and the judgment. There is something of fire, of abandonment, of judgement. God is holy, it’s about him and the judgement and the restoration are on his terms just as creation was. We know that part, but who is in, who is out, how they are out and all of that is largely left unknown. We live in the tension today, promised that those of us who believe in Christ also live in him. Isn’t that enough?
I know full well that there will be “surprises in heaven” as Bell states, but I do know that there will be plenty of surprises in hell as well (both the sheep and the goats were flabbergasted – Matthew 25:35-46).
So, does love win? Yes, as God wants it to. Our love is not his love, his ways are not our ways.
As my professor Bob Rossow put it in our Reformation class’ discussion of the doctrine of predestination:
“God is God. We are not. Glory to God.”
Thus, again we live in the tension.
So, thank you Mr. Bell for bringing the discussion back down to earth. May we all not focus so much on how you’re changing hell that we miss how important it is to orient the discussion back to what the Lord is doing today and how individuals are responding, both for the heaven and hell, in the here and now.
However, let’s not go where the text does not lead us. Being a reader of the narrative is submitting ourselves to the story and limiting ourselves to describing it. We do not deconstruct it or reinterpret it. We want to ask the questions the text wants to answer.
The error of reading our interpretation onto Scripture is happening on both sides of the Bell debate. In one instance the Reformed Neo-Calvinist theology takes its reasoned estimation and interpretational principle of GOD’s GLORY and thrusts it onto Scripture. No questions asked, no room left for surprises.
On the other side you have Bell with the pastoral heart of an emergent thinker who is very much about GOD’s LOVE. So much about GOD’s LOVE that I think he forgets GOD’s GLORY and errors on the other side of caution.
The truth, as always, is somewhere in the tension.
If you missed it, that’s the “bad.”
Now the ugly.
Rob Bell is still very much a son of his theological background. Evangelicals boil the whole God-loves-us equation down to a choice, a decision, a moment in a human life.
If God’s love is so powerful, if God’s glory is so great, if God’s Kingdom is so foreign, is God’s reign is to come down to earth and not the other way around then how can we say it is our choice?
It was our choice to bite the apple, it was our choice to run away from God, it was our choice to reject Jesus and crucify him, it was our choice to betray him, our choice to deny him, our choice to doubt him, it was our choice to misunderstand him, our choice to limit his promise to a certain tribe or people group and these are still our choices today.
We don’t get it and so our choices don’t work out very well.
Our choices suck.
Good thing that God is great. Good thing that God is love. Good thing that God does not rely on our choices, but on his own.
It was his choice to create us and match us together in the garden, it was his choice to clothe Adam and Eve in their nakedness, it was his choice to rescue his people from Egypt, it was his choice to guide them through the wilderness and return them to the promised land of their forefathers, it was his choice to judge them, it was his choice to restore them, it was his choice to give up his one and only Son and his choice to raise him from the dead, it was his choice to expand the promise to all nations, his choice to give his Son all authority on heaven and earth and his choice to be with us to the end of the age and then, it will be his choice, and his choice alone to restore heaven and earth and separate the wheat from the chaff.
The Reign of Christ and the restoration of heaven and earth is not about our choice.
It’s about what God is doing and the choices he is making.
If we miss that, we miss the whole thrust of Scripture.
In the end, I agree with Bell on this point – LOVE WINS.
But it is HIS LOVE, not our love, or our conception of his love, that wins.
It is HIS LOVE; on his terms and according to his will.
That’s the LOVE that RESTORES, that’s a LOVE that is MERCIFUL and GRACIOUS, that’s a LOVE that truly WINS.
Amen, let it be.